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Can Religion Improve a Person’s Mental Health?

That’s a big claim but there is considerable evidence for it. The question is, what does the evidence mean?
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In 2020, a year when Americans’ perception of their own mental health dropped significantly, we are told that Gallup reported:

The only demographic subgroup who didn’t report a decline were those who attend religious services weekly. That group showed an increase of 4 percent compared to 2019.

Joe Carter, “New Study: Frequent Churchgoers Have Better Mental Health” at Gospel Coalition

Carter cites several sources arguing for the benefits of religion but, in truth, it’s not really a new idea.

Religion gives people something to believe in, provides a sense of structure and typically offers a group of people to connect with over similar beliefs. These facets can have a large positive impact on mental health—research suggests that religiosity reduces suicide rates, alcoholism and drug use.

Luna Greenstein, “The Mental Health Benefits of Religion & Spirituality” at National Alliance on Mental Illness (December 21, 2016)

From Psychology Today:

The amassed research indicates that higher levels of religious belief and practice (known in social science as “religiosity”) is associated with better mental health. In particular, the research suggests that higher levels of religiosity are associated with lower rates of depression, anxiety, substance use disorder, and suicidal behavior. Religiosity is also associated with better physical health and subjective well-being.

Likewise, research indicates that religiosity can enhance recovery from mental illness, aiding in the healing process. For example, one classic research study shows that recovery from severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia is better in countries with higher levels of religiosity.

Rob Whitley, “Religion and Mental Health: What Is the Link?” at Psychology Today (Dec 18, 2017)

An academic study of many other studies in 2010 concluded:

To summarize, empirical evidence supports a generally protective effect of religious involvement for mental illness and psychological distress. Like all epidemiologic findings, there are exceptions: e.g. individuals whose religious ideation and practices contribute to, or reflect, pathology. But, on average, this finding is statistically significant, replicated, and modest in magnitude.

A couple of thoughts here:

➤ Religious groups provide community, which is especially important to aging people. That may be one reason why members of a faith community live longer. They are less likely to be all alone when they experience a health crisis.

➤ Religious groups also offer lifestyle goals. It should be no surprise that substance abuse is easier to address in faith communities. It’s not that people there are any more virtuous but that they feel less alone and more sure that—to use a famous expression from Alcoholics Anonymous— a higher power can help them even when it does not appear that they can help themselves.

➤ Toxic religious beliefs can certainly harm people but they tend not to be mainstream. For example, if we look at the Christian tradition, some people may be full of guilt and fear but the Nicene Creed teaches the “forgiveness of sins” as a fundamental truth. That statement is basic to normal expressions of the Christian religion.

By the nature of the case, we can’t know how much of the way religious belief improves wellbeing is due to the community it provides and how much of it is due to unseen and unknown factors. Perhaps they shade into each other. All we know for sure is that there is a consistent pattern.

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Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she has published two books on the topic: Faith@Science and By Design or by Chance? She has written for publications such as The Toronto Star, The Globe & Mail, and Canadian Living. She is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul. She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Can Religion Improve a Person’s Mental Health?